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Cluny III,  on jeanclaudegolvin com.jpg

I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.


West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.


Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

Cluny, Emile Sagot (1805-1888),Cluny XVI siecle,

Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).


The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.


Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).


We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

A Citrine (gemstone)

A Citrine (gemstone)

Citrine is the name of a deep rich golden yellow. It has been a color name in English since the 14th century (and it was the name for the same color in Medieval Latin—and before that in classical Latin). The word “citrine” also describes a gemstone which consists of yellow colored quartz crystal. Citrines are a semi-precious stone today, but they were once valuable and they can be found in various ancient crowns and classical jewelry. The word originally came from the deep yellow color of the citron, the wild ancestor of the lemon (which is a sacred fruit of the Old Testament), and because it is so descriptive of rich yellow it is used for the English name of numerous different birds and other creatures (like the citrine forktail below).

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)


The winter is gradually passing away into spring–which should be an exultant season for flower gardeners.  Yet the results in my back yard are extremely discouraging because the ferocious squirrels of Brooklyn have eaten all of my crocuses!  Despite planting an immense number of the hardy little flowers, I am still bereft of spring color.   I guess I should have expected something like this after the infernal bushy-tailed rodents ate all the glass bulbs from the Christmas lights…

The Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)

As it turns out, squirrels are not the only ones who love crocus flavor.  One of the world’s most precious spices is made from the little flowers.  The gourmet spice saffron literally consists of the harvested stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).  The saffron crocus plant has been domesticated since antiquity to provide the costly spice and the plant literally owes its existence to human appetite for the powdery threads.  Crocus sativus is a descendant of Crocus cartwrightianus, a wild crocus from the rocky skree of southwest Asia.   As humankind selectively planted the plants with the longest stigmas (and hence the most delicious saffron) the little crocus developed into a completely different—and completely dependent—species.  Crocus sativus now has magnificent spiraling stigma covered in deep yellow pollen, but the artificial selection came at a terrible cost.  The plant is a male sterile triploid, incapable of sexual reproduction thanks to its extra chromosome.  Saffron crocuses can only reproduce asexually and they require human assistance to prosper.  The spice is still prohibitively expensive since the little plants must be planted and harvested by hand.

A majority of the world's saffron currently comes from Iran.

Saffron is known to recorded history as early as the 7th century BC (when it was mentioned in a Assyrian botanical treatise) however archeological and genetic evidence suggest that saffron has been harvested for at least 4 millenia!  Since saffron contains over 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, I am not going to try to describe it to you—you’ll just have to get some yourself.  My favorite dish which uses the yellow pollen is mussels, saffron, vermouth, and cream!

Of course I am cheating a little bit by writing this article in the spring–the saffron crocus is really an autumn flowering plant.  However I felt like my slaughtered crocuses deserved some sort of memorial tribute.  Of course if I really wanted to commemorate the slain flowers I could turn to my paint box. In addition to being a spice, saffron is also a color—a deep orangey gold reminiscent of foods prepared with the spice.   Strangely, for a color so steeped in the sensory joys of living, saffron has also come to represent worldly renunciation.  Buddhist monks wear robes of deep saffron and the top bar of the Indian flag is the same rich orange-yellow.  The flag’s designers hoped that the color would inspire India’s leaders to set aside material gains and dedicate themselves to the welfare of the people, but, alas, in all societies such selfless dedication is even rarer than the rarest spice.

Buddhist Monks in Laos

I have lots of jobs and do lots of things, but my main source of income is working as an administrative drudge for the development office of a prestigious private university.  Development is a euphemism for asking people for money—particularly rich people (who are more generous than you might think—as evinced by the sorts of large charitable gifts they give major universities). One of my occasional duties is to help staff special events.  In such a capacity (i.e. as a footman/attendant who handed out brochures and nametags), I attended a financial math event about a month ago. Almost everyone in the room was a successful Wall Street financial employee with a comprehensive background in liberal arts as well as a high powered math degree.

The keynote speaker was a young financier who became vastly wealthy in the hedge fund world. He gave a conscientious lecture about his qualms concerning his industry. Basically, according to the speaker, most (or all) hedge fund managers suggest to potential clients that a 15% return per year is the likely upshot of investing in their hedge funds—even though, if such a thing were possible, the money created by hedge funds would quickly surpass all of the riches created by the remainder of all other enterprises (it’s amazing how a few extra points add up).  The speaker then explained the basic tenets of the industry (sadly I was too busy pillaging the immense cheese platter to listen attentively) and presented his conclusion:  the hedge fund industry does not add 15% per year every year and it is unable to do so.  Not even close. Many of its supposed gains are illusory.

"Maybe just a few slices...wait, what was that about how to get rich?"

The room erupted in angry muttering.  The richest and most generous financier (who was not the keynote speaker but many, many times wealthier) leaped up and began to assail the underlying assertions of the speaker.  In addition to his wealth, this particular financier also had a…forceful personality.  He reputedly owns a giant baronial estate in Connecticut where he emulates the lifestyle of an Edwardian grandee—complete with a downstairs staff that is not the supposed to look him in the eye!   He launched into a tirade which included the following metaphor for the financial industry.

Finance, said the wealthiest financier in the room, is a means by which society apportions resources to the sectors most in need of them.  It is like the blood.  The blood carries oxygen away from the lungs and carries waste products to the kidneys. When a person eats a meal, the blood rushes to the stomach and then subsequently rushes digested nutrients away from the intestines.  When a person runs, the blood rushes oxygen to the legs and carries off the bi-products of muscle labor.  When a person is about to make love the blood rushes to the… and there the great financier trailed off, while everyone in the room started tittering or furiously gesturing for the microphone (which I, in my tattered jacket, dutifully rushed over to them).

The financial mathematicians talked angrily for a while about how critical their industry is to making civilization run and then the last speaker angrily added that people who do not like banks, brokerages, or financial companies are free not to use them.  Then they left (leaving the cheese and cured meats almost untouched by anyone save me).  I noticed the keynote speaker’s scruples did not keep him from jumping into a chauffeured midnight blue Maybach limousine (the cheapest model of which has a base price of $344,000.00) which had been idling by the curb.

This car is stupid. Why not buy weird art?

In this age of anti-Wall Street protests, I have been thinking about the wealthy financier’s metaphor and I feel that it was apt. The financial markets are indeed supposed to deliver capital to medical research, nanotechnology firms, or to the construction industry–just as blood is meant to rush nutrients to the pancreas or to the biceps when needed.  Blood however is not supposed to build a 50 room mansion on Long Island and then buy a private jet and a dozen cigarette boats. Society’s resources are being misallocated. Our blood is bad! When I related the whole metaphor to a clever friend he likened the current state of investment banking to leukemia or some sort of esoteric metastasizing blood-borne cancer that takes over the resources of an entire body to build a useless self-sustaining tumor that then destroys the body.

So, what do we do about this cancer?

I don’t like regulations.  I feel that America has too many already.  People who are rich and powerful can afford to follow asinine bureaucratic rules by means of large teams of experts (or they can subvert or change the rules with help from their politician buddies). The same friend who likened investment banking to a cancer is a securities lawyer!  He described just a handful of the astringent requirements already laid upon the industry and they were profoundly onerous. If complex regulation were a solution to Wall Street’s excesses, it already would have kicked in.

In a certain sense it may be that the snide Wall Street guy at my event who closed the evening by telling the protesters not to use banks or corporations was right. Such a thing is already happening.  Investors are waking up to the illusory nature of the wares hawked by investment banks and huge financial firms.  I was at a development event for the business school of the university earlier this week.  The dean privately confided (to a room with 700 people) that his most talented graduates were heading towards smaller private equity firms rather than the overexposed and hated bulge bracket investment banks. In an ecosystem where the wolves are too much stronger than the sheep, they eat all of the sheep and then starve.  Newer smaller predators take their place.  This is beginning to happen. And so a new cycle begins.

But I’m not sure that just talking about the finance sector is satisfactory after the havoc that sector has caused.

Our representative democracy may have been subverted by wealthy and powerful clicks, but it is still a democracy.  Be sure to vote against any incumbents even if you are voting against your interests.  And last of all, to you protesters out there:  I’m not sure I like your drum circles or the way you dress.  Your point is ill-defined and badly articulated…but it is still a good point.  I believe you are gradually having an effect on public opinion and public discourse (even if media companies owned by billionaires say otherwise). The blood is bad! Keep on telling everyone! Such is your right in the land of the free.  But while you are doing so please be careful and be safe.  Keep your heads un-truncheoned. These bad times pass away and society will need you all to run the next generation of companies that private equity is only just starting to finance.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020